Just under forty years ago Cambodia was sadly renowned for only one thing. The genocide overseen by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge government between 1975 and 1979 led to the deaths of around 1.7million of its people and it is impossible to visit the country and not be aware of the atrocities that were committed.
It is very hard to even start to get your head around this – either the events themselves or even the implications for modern-day Cambodia. With around 20% of the population having lost their lives during this period, as well as thousands of the most educated citizens specifically being targeted, it’s impossible to evaluate the impact this has had on the country; on families and communities; on key industries such as science, health and education; or even on the national psyche.
Helping people to come to terms with these tragic events, one of the most visited tourist spots in Phnom Penh is Tuol Sleng, a former school that was turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and ultimately murdered.
Needless to say, a lengthy series of articles would not do justice to the stories coming from such a historically important place, let alone just this one. The museum’s main goal is to educate people on the atrocities that occurred so as to prevent anything like this ever happening again. To illustrate this, many of the rooms have been left just as they were when this place was discovered; the torture equipment left in plain sight for all to see.
In addition to testimonies from those that were tortured there were also accounts from ordinary people who had been made to work for the Khmer Rouge government and thus were involved to varying degrees in the events that actually occurred during this dark period in the nation’s history.
I found these accounts particularly bleak. It appeared so clear that people were simply doing anything they could to survive at the time and they of course now had to live with the consequences and guilt associated with such events.
‘In 1974 the Khmer Rouge began recruiting for the military; I volunteered to join them, because I thought that doing that was better than being a normal citizen, who was subjected to intense labors like constructing dams. The Khmer Rouge destroyed my family. During the regime we were starved and separated. We rarely met. I did not believe what they taught me, but I could do nothing because all were under their control; to save our lives we had to do what we were told’
– Soam Nim, 55 (speaking in 2002)
And of course in relation to this project – and thinking back to the empty seats of Christchurch, New Zealand, it was impossible not to look at the hundreds of pictures of the people killed and wonder what their aspirations and ambitions in life might have been…
As I left the museum I spoke via a translator to one of the few living survivors from this detention centre. Bou Meng, now 73, was in captivity when the centre was finally closed. During the Khmer Rouge period he lost his wife, Ma Yoeun, who was tortured and killed in the infamous Cambodian Killing Fields in 1977.
‘Students should listen to teacher. Listen to adults. They need to make sure they learn something good, something useful’.
It is perhaps not surprising that Bou Meng gives such a strong endorsement of the opportunities that school provides. One Khmer Rouge slogan stated, ‘There are no diplomas, only diplomas one can visualise. If you wish to get a Baccalaureate, you have to get it at dams and canals’ another stated, ‘Study is not important. What’s important is work and revolution’. As a result, formal schools were totally prohibited under the Khmer Rouge’s rule. The regime turned public schools and pagodas into prisons, stables and warehouses.